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IIO director lauds co-operation while clearing police in three deaths

Richard Rosenthal, chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office, at his office in Surrey, B.C., in August 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The head of British Columbia's fledgling police watchdog has praised the co-operation between his office and police forces around the province, saying his experience at the helm of the agency has been different than what has gone on elsewhere.

Richard Rosenthal, director of the Independent Investigations Office, made his statements after releasing three reports completed by his office which cleared officers of wrongdoing in connection to separate police-involved deaths.

The office concluded there is no evidence that police officers committed an offence in any of the incidents.

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Two of the investigations involved RCMP in Surrey, B.C., while the other involved a confrontation with a distraught man in Vancouver.

Rosenthal told reporters Thursday the start of the investigations office couldn't have rolled out better.

"I almost want to say it's remarkable, but it's not," he said of his five months of working with provincial police forces.

"In Ontario, the first five to 10 years of the special investigations unit ... a lack of co-operation was constantly reported. B.C. is different. In B.C., every chief was supportive of this program."

Rosenthal is a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County and was appointed in 2005 as Denver's first police monitor.

In the Vancouver incident on Nov. 13, 2012, police used a taser in an effort to subdue a 33-year-old man who was repeatedly stabbing himself, but the victim later died in hospital.

"They were asked by the individual to shoot him," Rosenthal said.

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The first jolt of the taser was ineffective, but the second taser strike worked and officers were able to get handcuffs on the man, he explained.

"In my conclusion, the officers did everything they could to try to save this individual from committing suicide. The taser was the best available tool."

He said the only other alternative for police would have been to use their firearms and that probably would have meant the office would be investigating an officer-involved shooting instead.

On Dec. 21, 2012, a Surrey RCMP officer stopped a van to check an obscured licence plate and the driver shot himself before the officer was able reach the vehicle.

Just one week later, another Surrey Mountie was involved in a crash that turned deadly when the distracted driver died several days after suddenly turning his vehicle in front of the officer's oncoming, unmarked police van.

Those two cases were closed within 60 days, while the case involving the taser was completed in 104 days.

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Rosenthal said his office's investigations are much more timely than when police were investigating such incidents themselves.

"My understanding, for officer-involved shootings, is they would generally not be closed for up to a year and a half," he said. "For other in-custody deaths, it would have taken usually over a year."

Since the office opened last September, it has taken on 17 files, 11 cases remain open and five of those are of officer-involved shootings.

The first officer-involved shooting came the same day the IIO opened for business on Sept. 10.

Rosenthal said he believes his team will get faster with investigations as their work continues and investigators gain more experience.

He said his team has three goals for investigations: competent, unbiased reports, timeliness and transparency.

Rosenthal said when people can read over and evaluate the IIO reports for themselves, it can only result in improved accountability for police and greater public faith in police.

"If we do our job right, then we expect the faith in police will go up and accountability will go up."

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